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Buenas dias, Havana. Adios, Buena Vista…

Cuba passportIt was October 24, 1983, an ordinary enough day, when I arrived at Havana’s José Martí airport on a gentle assignment to write a travel piece about Cuba for The Times. To staff journalists of all newspapers, these trips — usually laid on by a government or local tourist board — represent free holidays: there’s nothing demanding about them, and of course they’re ethically questionable. For me this one was a particularly interesting trip in prospect, given that Cuba wasn’t yet a real tourist destination and that I had a long-standing interest in the Castro revolution and its consequences. Very quickly it became a great deal more interesting, in a wholly unexpected way.

After checking into the Habana Riviera, a modernist 21-storey hotel built in 1957 by the mobster Meyer Lansky on the sea-front boulevard called the Malecón, I was taken to the Tropicana night club, where it might as well have been the night before Castro and his freedom fighters arrived in the city 24 years earlier. There were dancers in exotic costumes and a big band that sounded like the one Machito might have left behind when he emigrated to New York to make his fortune in 1940. This was going to be fun.

The next morning, however, everything changed. The office called to say that paratroopers of the US 82nd Airborne had landed in Grenada, where they were fighting against Cubans. This turned out to be the vanguard of a full-scale invasion that eventually involved 7,000 American troops whose aim was to seize an airport under construction by Cuban workers and believed by Ronald Reagan to be intended for the use of Soviet transport planes. Or so the US story went.

The political background was complicated, involving the ousting and execution a few days earlier of Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s prime minister, who had staged a coup and established a People’s Revolutionary Government in 1979. Now another coup had installed a military government. The US justified their invasion, which lasted several days and claimed 89 lives (45 Grenadan, including 24 civilians killed in the accidental bombing of a mental hospital; 25 Cuban; and 19 American), by claiming that they had been requested to step in by the island’s governor-general and by the leaders of several other small Caribbean states.

If you couldn’t be in Grenada, Cuba was the best place for a reporter to be. The Cuban workers were fighting alongside those Grenadians who resisted the US forces. That morning, apart from the Guardian‘s stringer, Noll Scott, there were no other foreign journalists to be seen. This would change very quickly. Peter Arnett of the newly created CNN, a New Zealander who had won a Pulitzer Prize reporting on the Vietnam war for the Associated Press, was among the first to land. He was closely followed by a TV anchorman who kept a can of hairspray in his briefcase, for application just before the camera rolled.

Soon there were press conferences to attend — by Fidel, his brother Raúl, and their foreign minister, Ricardo Alarcón — and the British ambassador to be visited in an office that could have come straight from the pages of one of Graham Greene’s novels. A couple of days later, there were wounded workers to be seen arriving at the airport and interviewed in an impressively well appointed hospital a bit further down the Malecón. The scheduled visits to beaches and resort hotels in other parts of the island were quickly forgotten.

So I stayed on for a week, enjoying my temporary role as a foreign correspondent, filing news and op-ed pieces by telex. I went to gaze at the window in Che’s old office in the finance ministry, where the light is never switched off. I saw schoolchildren making a procession to the Malecón and throwing flowers into the sea in memory of the revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos. I walked to the famous junction of 23rd Avenue and 12th Street — 23 y 12 — where anti-imperialist demonstrations traditionally took place. I noted the posters with their patriotic slogans and the mansions lining the Paseo del Prado, a handsome18th century boulevard.

There was time, in between the reporting, to attend an afternoon concert in a small theatre where a series of elderly singers performed ballads to guitar accompaniment in a sober, understated style that was unfamiliar to me but seemed like a cross between French chanson and Portuguese fado. Its dignified restraint had nothing to do with charanga or salsa, the Cuban idioms with which I was acquainted. My guess today would be that it was trova or canción, related forms of traditional ballad-singing.

An example of the music I heard that day is contained in Lost and Found, an excellent compilation of unreleased recordings by the musicians who contributed to the historic Buena Vista Social Club album in 1996, many of whom are no longer with us. Its appearance coincides with the arrival of a farewell tour by the surviving members and their colleagues.

In between the typically vigorous tracks by Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, Cachaíto López, Rubén González and the rest, the album features two solo pieces by Ochoa, recorded late at night in Havana’s Egrem studio at the end of a session for Ferrer’s solo album in 1998. Ochoa accompanies himself on guitar on a song called “Pedacito de Papel”, a ballad by Francisco Alberto Simó Damirón, a celebrated Dominican composer and pianist — known as Damirón — who died in 1992, aged 83. It’s preceded by a short piece called “Quiéreme Mucho”, an instrumental version of a song composed 100 years ago by the Cuban composer Gonzalo Roig.

The supreme elegance of this music enfolds me in the memory not just of an individual concert but of a rather unusual week.

* Lost and Found is released on the World Circuit label. The Buena Vista Social Club, including Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa, begin a short British tour at Brighton Dome on April 4.

Phil Manzanera’s Sound of Blue

Phil ManzaneraThere’s a story behind the version of “No Church in the Wild” that appears on Phil Manzanera’s new album, and the guitarist tells it to here, in an interview with the Independent. In brief, Jay-Z and Kanye West sampled a guitar riff Manzanera had invented for the title track of his album K-Scope in 1978, and turned it into a track on their mega-hit album Watch the Throne. The result: Phil’s biggest payday in some time, although when they asked his permission, he’d just about forgotten the track existed.

He repaid the compliment by recording his version of their version, and including it on The Sound of Blue, which is out this week. He and his band premiered some of the tracks from the album last night at what he described as a friends-and-family gig in the basement of the Gibson guitars showroom in Eastcastle Street, near Piccadilly Circus. The set opened with some pleasant instrumentals, including one multi-sectioned piece featuring his old Roxy Music team-mate Andy Mackay on alto saxophone, appropriately titled “A Conversation with Andy Mackay”. But it really took off when Manzanera introduced a young London-based singer named Sonia Bernardo for two songs, the second of which was “No Church in the Wild”.

The first, “1960 Caracas”, referred to a scene from Manzanera’s peripatetic boyhood, which was spent in various parts of South America and the Caribbean. A dark, low-riding rhythm supported the title phrase, chanted by most of the band along with Bernardo as she tossed her long black hair and hoiked up her skirts in a manner that had the audience, men and women alike, reaching for their camera-phones. You could say she’d already made an impression.

But it was with “No Church in the Wild” that she really came into focus. Against that now fiendishly memorable guitar riff, supported by the bass guitar of the redoubtable Yaron Stavi, the drums of Javier Weyler and howlingly soulful Hammond effects from Paddy Milner’s synthesiser, she crooned and ululated with strength, control, conviction and a really enormous amount of presence. I love the track on the album (here is a Vimeo clip), but in person it revealed itself in three dimensions and full colour. When it was over, you just wanted them to play it again.

In an enjoyable show, those two songs made an impact out of all proportion to their brief duration. Sonia Bernardo is 24 years old and she comes from Portugal. It’s hard to imagine how she can be stopped.

* The Sound of Blue is released on Manzanera’s own label, Expression Records.

Michael Brown and ‘Walk Away Renee’

Left BankeMichael Brown died this week, aged 65. He was 16 when he wrote “Walk Away Renee” and recorded it with his group, the Left Banke. Countless hearts have been touched by it in the decades since its first appearance.

I love a song that begins with “And”. The listener is thrown straight into the middle of the singer’s emotions: “And when I see the signs that point one way / The lot we used to pass by every day…” So simple, so graphic, so universal. And there’s the sweet sadness of the last verse: “Your name and mine inside a heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me though they’re so small…”

It seems that Brown wrote the song about the girlfriend of Tom Finn, the group’s bass-guitarist, and the quasi-baroque arrangement of the Left Banke’s version, featuring a string quartet with an alto flute solo, was like a protective screen for the teenage protagonist, whose tone of wounded introspection was perfectly located by the singer, Steve Martin. (Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone – neither of them members of the group — are always credited as co-composers, but since neither seems to have done much else in the way of writing hit songs, you have to wonder about that.) The style of the arrangement was also a reminder that Brown, who played harpsichord on the session, had received a classical training.

He was born Michael Lookofsky, the son of Harry Lookofsky, a noted New York session violinist who appeared on countless albums — including a featured appearance, playing tenor violin, on a great Gil Evans session from 1971. The father owned the studio where the Left Banke recorded their debut single, which was released on the Smash label and made the US top five in September 1966.

Just over a year later came the first great cover version, by the Four Tops, in which the composer-producer team of Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier showed their ability to react to new developments by applying their genius to someone else’s song. Brown’s composition inspires one of Levi Stubbs’s finest vocal performances, introduced by that riveting brass fanfare, supported by Eddie Willis’s loosely strummed rhythm guitar and swept along by Benny Benjamin’s finest snare-and-tom-tom fills. And what is that combination featured during the instrumental interlude: muted trumpet and cor anglais, maybe? The textures throughout, and the sense of aural perspective they convey, still inspire astonishment.

Rickie Lee Jones recorded the third great version on her 10-inch album Girl At Her Volcano in 1983. She changes the song’s gender (from “Renee” to “Rene”) and stretches its inbuilt pathos about as far as it will go without disintegrating. As the tempo comes and goes, the singer seems to be slipping in and out of a reverie. It’s one of her most inventive and touching recorded performances. And behind her lovely piano, even the ’80s-style synth washes sound fine.

For me, these are the three indelible versions of a much-covered song which seldom fails to bring the best out of those who take it on. Thank you for that, Michael Brown.

The first rock critic

author pic by DannyBrightBefore there was Lester Bangs, before there was Robert Christgau, before there was Dave Marsh, before there was even Greil Marcus, there was Richard Goldstein, a man with some claim to having invented the job of rock critic. I began reading Goldstein’s pieces in the Village Voice in 1966, at about the time he started his weekly column, which was titled “Pop Eye”. He was aged 22 and had actually witnessed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable; he wrote about the Velvet Underground in terms that made them sound like the most exciting thing happening that year. Which they turned out to be.

It would be more accurate to use Goldstein’s own scrupulous self-definition: “The first critic to write regularly about rock music in a major publication.” And the Voice was indeed then a major publication, a beatnik broadsheet ready-made for the incoming counterculture.

In Another Little Piece of My Heart, his new memoir of his life in the ’60s, he mentions that there is some dispute about whether he was actually the first. “A small magazine called Crawdaddy, which featured serious essays on rock, appeared a few months before my column began,” he writes. “If any of its writers want to claim that they got there first, I say, Go for it, dude! (And I’m sure you’re a dude.)”

I didn’t agree with everything he wrote. (In particular, he seemed rather too keen on the early work of the Bee Gees.) But I found myself in agreement with his provocative review of Sgt Pepper, in which he attracted scorn by claiming that the album represented a fall from the pinnacle represented by Rubber Soul and Revolver. Now he says that he has recanted. I haven’t.

His book is an entertaining account of growing up in a time of discovery. An unprepossessing (by his own account) kid from the Bronx, a seemingly unexceptional student at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, he found his way into the Voice, into Clay Felker’s trend-setting New York magazine, into the New York Times (whose editors censored his mention of Diana Ross farting during their encounter), and into many other publications.

It is a very ’60s story. He has extremely interesting things to say about Mailer, McLuhan, Marcuse and the Maharishi, about Janis and Jim, about Sontag and Spector (he attended the “River Deep — Mountain High” sessions), about William Burroughs and Brian Wilson. Jimi Hendrix’s flaming guitar narrowly missed his head at the Monterey pop festival (it was caught, he says, by Robert Christgau, his eventual successor at the Voice). The Velvets played at his wedding, MC’d by Murray the K at the Cheetah discotheque (a week later there was a proper Jewish ceremony, for his parents’ benefit).

He went to San Francisco to cover the Summer of Love with high hopes of witnessing the emergence of a new society, and has vivid memories of the disillusionment: “…the love-in lasted until it became apparent that the kids wandering around stoned and senseless were so many sitting ducks. Dope dealers and bruisers looking for sex descended on them, resulting in rapes and an influx of heroin. It was presented by the media as proof that the land of commodification was the only safe place; beyond lay dragons. It took less than a year for the festival to turn ugly.”

Those who chronicled the scene at the time will recognise his description of the business world’s swift adaptation to the new reality: “By 1967 the music industry had mastered the art of appealing to writers like me. Record executives wore their own version of the hippie look: a requisite Nehru jacket with a discreet string of beads. Publicists would flash a peace sign at the end of a pitch. At the major labels, there were rooms set aside for previews of albums not yet released. I remember being invited to one of those special private concerts. The president of the company, which specialised in rock with vaguely folkie credentials, greeted me personally. He ushered me into a sound-baffled chamber with huge speakers and plush chairs. He pointed to a butterfly-shaped box on the table, and then he left the room. Inside the box was a small pipe and a block of hashish. The music started. I sank into a chair and lit up. It was much harder than payola to resist.”

I haven’t read many first-person accounts of the era that make more responsible and convincing use of hindsight. Goldstein’s revolutionary politics — which extended to his own sexual identity — made him an uneasy observer quite early on. “Try as I might to be faithful to the spirit of the music,” he says, zooming in on the Who’s famous performance at Monterey from a vantage point among the hippie royalty in the VIP enclosure, “there was always something to remind me of the gap between authenticity and artifice that was such a central issue for me during the sixties. Rock, for all its power to stir and subvert, to shake and rattle the establishment, was also show business.”

Attracted to the world of Sontag, who encouraged but also patronised him, he writes: “I watched uneasily as intellectuals descended on radical culture and politics like tourists from the developed world. They were enchanted by what should have made them sceptical, and since they generally lived safe lives they were quite susceptible to the thrill of chaos.” The best thing about the ’60s, he says, was “the willingness to try nearly anything that hadn’t been tried before. It was a truly stimulating strategy, because it allowed young people to imagine the future in practically limitless terms. But it placed all our impulses on an equal footing, suppressing our ability to think and behave strategically.”

Goldstein was a believer in the revolutionary potential of art, and rock music turned out not to be quite the agent of revolution that he wanted it to be. His internal struggle reached the point at which “there was no way to justify remaining outside the battle.” The turning-point came when he went to Chicago in August 1968 to cover the protests at the Democratic Party convention and finally gave up the pretence of journalistic objectivity. In the face-off between the protesters and the police in Lincoln Park, he experienced his epiphany: “The moment when I removed my press pass was the instant when I crossed over from the regretful life of the protected to the thrilling zone of risk. Everyone here had seen, if not shed, blood. They were the hardcore, and I was finally among them.”

If his ultimate commitment to the music was not as deep, or his desire to turn it into a career as single-minded, as some of those who followed him, that makes his account, with its cherishable vignettes and constant self-questioning, all the more readable and thought-provoking.

Richard Goldstein’s Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s is published by Bloomsbury Circus. The photograph of the author is by Danny Bright.

Brooklyn Latino

PelirojaOut of the blue, a package arrived from Brooklyn the other day, accompanied by a note from Jacob Plasse, the guiding spirit of Chulo Records, an independent label operating under the rubric “New York Latin Soul”. The three discs he sent — by Peliroja, Melaza and Los Hacheros — reminded me that the Latino vitamin has been missing from my musical diet this winter.

They’re all good and worth investigating for the way they update Latin styles, but Peliroja’s Injusticia turned out to be the one that’s been almost impossible to prise out of the CD player. The heart of the group, its songwriters, are the lead singer Jainardo Batista, the keyboardist Mike Eckroth, and Plasse, who plays guitar and produced the album. The remainder of the core band are bassist Nick Movshon, baritone saxophonist Morgan Price, Carlos Padron on congas, timbales and other percussion. Plenty of others are involved, the name most swiftly catching my eye being that of the drummer Homer Steinweiss, familiar from his work with the brilliant Dap-Kings, Brooklyn’s kings of the kind of retro-soul that doesn’t sound retro at all (and with whom Movshon has also played).

On the label’s website, Plasse says that the sound of the band, some of whose members have played together since their schooldays, is inspired by “the sounds of Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Congo”. Peliroja play an updated, more globalised version of the kind of stuff I used to love from Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow and Willie Colon, and the lead-off track, “Bohemio”, is a very fine example of their application of 21st century energy to a classically structured salsa groove. “Honor Enjendrade” tips its hat to Africa and “La Fobia” would bring any club in the world to the boil as the full band thunders back in after the breakdown.

If those tracks gives a hint of the creativity Eckroth brings to the arrangements, a gorgeous ballad called “Se Equivoco” realises all the potential: the gruff baritone solo, a swooning dirge-dance from the guest strings, the steady sway of the bass, the slow ticking of the percussion and Batista’s expressive vocal make it a track I know I’ll be listening to for many years to come.

* The photograph is from the cover of Peliroja’s album. The website is chulorecords.com.

The story of Sandy Denny

Sandy Denny & Rhiannon GiddensI’ve been listening to Rhiannon Giddens’ new solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, while reading Mick Houghton’s just-published biography of Sandy Denny, I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn. Not at the same time, you understand, but it’s an interesting and salutary juxtaposition.

Tomorrow Is My Turn is almost scary in the perfection of its settings for Giddens’ treatment of blues, folk, country and gospel songs. As a producer of this kind of material, T Bone Burnett offers a guarantee of empathy: a mandolin here, a fiddle there, a banjo where needed, a touch of horns, a subtle wash of strings, all applied with the greatest sensitivity to an exquisite choice of material. It’s one of the year’s essential purchases, a huge step forward for a singer whose work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops had already established her credentials as an interpreter of roots music. She’s a very fine singer, and she deserves this treatment. You find yourself nodding your head in admiration as she copes so elegantly with the various idioms (even French chanson: check the poised understatement of her version of the Charles Aznavour song that gives the album its title).

Sandy Denny, however, was not merely a fine singer: she was a great one. Not only were her tone and phrasing lovely and distinctive, but she sang from the inside of a song and she had the gift of slowing your heartbeat to match the pulse of her music. What she didn’t possess were the attributes that seem to be propelling Giddens to a higher plane: a powerful sense of focus, a rock-solid self-confidence, and the right team around her at the right time.

I knew Sandy a little, and even 37 years after her death I found reading I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn an extremely distressing experience. Mick Houghton is not a dramatic writer, but he doesn’t need to be: he just needs to stitch together, with quiet diligence and the aid of fresh testimony from many of her surviving friends and colleagues, the story of how Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny, born in Wimbledon in 1947, achieved recognition without managing to build the sort of career that everyone expected her to have, and then fell so fast and so conclusively that she was dead at 31.

Two linked episodes — the aftermath of Fairport Convention’s motorway tragedy and the saga of Fotheringay — stand out as pivotal. One night in May 1969 the van carrying members of Fairport Convention back to London from a gig in Birmingham crashed down an embankment on the M1, killing Martin Lamble, their drummer, and Jeannie Franklyn, the girlfriend of Richard Thompson, their lead guitarist. The traumatised band recruited a new drummer, Dave Mattacks, and a fiddler, Dave Swarbrick, and threw themselves into a different kind of project: the album Liege and Lief, in which they applied rock-band techniques to traditional material. It was released in December of that year, and its instant critical acceptance as a benchmark in the evolution of folk-rock diverted them from the musical path they would surely have followed had the accident never happened and the fast-evolving songwriting of Sandy and Richard remained the core of their activity.

Eventually the pair left in frustration, both keen to stretch their wings. Sandy put together the five-piece Fotheringay in 1970 with her new boyfriend, the Australian singer/guitarist Trevor Lucas. Joe Boyd, who had mentored and produced the Fairports, firmly believed that Sandy’s future was as a solo artist, not as a member of another group — particularly not one organised, as she insisted, along strictly democratic and non-hierarchical lines. He distrusted the charismatic but headstrong Lucas, and he was appalled by the way the record company’s large advance — originally predicated on a solo album — was being blown on such things as an oversized PA system and a Bentley in which they made their way to gigs.

But although Fotheringay’s first album, and their uncompleted second effort, may have been recorded under Boyd’s disapproving gaze, out of those sessions came the finest moment of Sandy’s career. Within the highly original and starkly dramatic arrangement of “Banks of the Nile”, a traditional ballad telling the story of the reaction of a young girl to the imminent departure of her soldier lover, Sandy seems to summon centuries of English history. As the singer Dick Gaughan said on the subject, in an eloquent note in the booklet accompanying A Boxful of Treasures, the five-CD anthology released by Fledg’ling Records in 2004: “The raw, aching agony which she brings to her reading of it makes it impossible not to feel the fear and grief of the young woman at the separation from her loved one and the uncertainty of his return from the horrors of war . . . It is the supreme example of the craft of interpreting traditional song and is the standard every singer should be aiming for.”

Sandy didn’t write “Banks of the Nile”, but she did write “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, “Late November”, “John the Gun”, “It’ll Take a Long Time” and other songs that showed her gift for taking a sudden but invariably graceful left turn with a melody or finessing an unexpected chord change with perfect logic, and for lyrics that often contained affectionate but clear-eyed portraits of friends and fellow musicians (Anne Briggs in “The Pond and the Stream”, for example, or Richard Thompson in “Nothing More”). But “Banks of the Nile” indicates most clearly what might have been, had a combination of internal and external pressures not provoked the disintegration of Fotheringay after less than a year, thus denying her the chance to remain a member of a sympathetic and settled unit whose collective musical ambition matched her own.

Chronic insecurities were beginning to hinder her career, particularly after the rupture with Boyd, which removed a provider of support and decisiveness. The biggest blow to Fotheringay was dealt by the Royal Albert Hall concert of October 1970. Disastrously, they invited Elton John to open the show, at the very moment when his career was taking off. He hadn’t yet grown into his full on-stage flamboyance, but his performance was powerful enough to put his hosts in the shade. When they came out after the intermission, it was somehow like the colour on a TV set had been suddenly turned off — and the audience, which had come to acclaim Sandy and her band, found themselves present at an epic anti-climax. Three months later, demoralised by that event and by the unsatisfactory sessions for their projected second album, the band broke up — thanks largely to a simple misunderstanding between Sandy and Joe Boyd over the terms on which he would produce her first solo effort.

In fact Boyd never produced her in the studio again, and the four solo albums released between 1971 and 1977 chronicle a diminishing ability to identify and present the essence of who she really was. The overproduced (by Lucas) cover version of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” on the final album, Rendezvous, represented some sort of nadir. The record company — Island — did its best, which too often turned out to be not so good. She found herself agreeing to be photographed by David Bailey, to be dressed up in a 1930s costume, and to be airbrushed and wind-machined in an effort to create an image more superficially glamorous than that represented by her own true self. As Island grew too quickly and had its head turned by success, her career became, to some extent, collateral damage.

When she was voted Britain’s top female singer by the readers of the Melody Maker not once but twice, in 1970 and 1971, it was assumed that commercial success would take care of itself. But after Boyd, she didn’t get much constructive help — for which, now, I must partially blame myself, since I was running Island’s A&R department between 1973 and 1976. But the artists inherited from Boyd’s Witchseason stable were somehow thought to be a law unto themselves in terms of musical direction, and although Sandy was loved within the company for her warmth of her personality as well as for her artistry, she was not biddable. Nor, in those days, were real artists supposed to be.

Houghton doesn’t slow up the narrative by spending much time describing the music, but he does make some discreetly perceptive observations. He remarks that Sandy’s first solo release, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, is “the only album on which Sandy steadfastly stands her ground — usually by the seashore or the riverbank — and invites her audience to come to her.” And he writes of Trevor Lucas, five years later, working on the production of the ill-starred Rendezvous, “doing such protracted overdubs that it was almost as if he was subconsciously trying to bury the sentiments of the songs.”

Although delving deep into her turbulent love-match with Lucas and the increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol that accompanied her decline, he treads lightly when it comes to other, deeper-lying factors that might be held partially responsible for her unhappiness, such as an enduring fretfulness about her looks (particularly her weight) and an apparent history of abortions and miscarriages. Some readers may feel that the significance of these matters looms larger than the author allows himself to suggest. Eventually, in 1977, she would have a child with Lucas, a girl whom the father found it necessary to kidnap and take off to Australia less than a year later, as Sandy’s problems worsened. Four days after their unannounced departure she was found unconscious at the foot of the stairs at a friend’s flat in Barnes, and died in hospital a further four days later.

It’s a shock to realise that someone you knew has now been dead for longer than they were alive. Had she lived, she would have turned 68 a few weeks ago. Perhaps in that time she’d have encountered another manager, producer or A&R person capable of earning her trust, focusing her talent, nurturing the elements that made her unique, and presenting them to the world in the right package — the kind of package that Rhiannon Giddens seems to have been granted in 2015. Who knows how much great music was left in her? I like to think of Sandy coaxing Anne Briggs out of seclusion and inviting Kate Rusby to join them both on stage.

Houghton’s scrupulously fair account of her life makes it clear that she could be difficult and destructive, but allows those who knew her well to remember another side. The drummer Bruce Rowland — who had replaced Dave Mattacks in the Fairports by the time she recorded a last album, Rising for the Moon, with the band in 1975 — touchingly calls her “endlessly forgivable”. Her old folk-club mate Ralph McTell tells Houghton: “She would provoke — push people to the very limit at times, which sounds like she was a nasty person, but she wasn’t. People would take it because they loved her. I don’t know anyone who didn’t love her.” And you didn’t have to know her to love her. You only had to listen to “Banks of the Nile”.

* I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn is published by Faber & Faber. Tomorrow Is My Turn is released on the Nonesuch label.

 

The parable of the credits

It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t get on well with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But I did stay until the end of the film, all the way to the credits, at which point I was unexpectedly rewarded by the sound of a record that I sometimes think would be the one I’d save from a burning house: Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)”.

For me this record, a US Top 40 hit in the summer of 1962, is Burt Bacharach’s finest hour as a writer of melodies and arrangements. His creation finds its perfect match in Bob Hilliard’s poetic words, with their gloriously gloomy prediction that “those blue shadows will fall over town” when the singer’s lover leaves, as he is convinced she will. Jackson, one of the best singers of his type and era, does the song full justice: of all the many artists who later covered it, none ever improved on this original version. In the lovely clip above, Bacharach mimes the distinctive organ intro; it was actually played in the studio by the great Paul Griffin.

Hearing it at the very end of a film I disliked was a reminder of sitting through Wim Wenders’s three-hour 1991 film Until the End of the World, until the moment when, after what felt like several weeks, the credits rolled and a half-familiar voice croaked: “I tried to reach you… on Valentine’s Day…”. Thus I was introduced to Robbie Robertson’s “Breakin’ the Rules”, a track from the 1991 album Storyville which — thanks not least to the understated nobility of its horn arrangement by the late Wardell Quezergue, as well as the achingly soulful vocals shared by Robertson with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan — has existed for me ever since on a plane only half a notch below “Any Day Now”, which is to say within touching distance of heaven.

So the moral must be: whatever your opinion of the film, don’t leave your seat until you’ve see the line about no animals being harmed and the lights have come up.

Taking the long view

Coin Con Chapter ThreeMatana Roberts thinks big, encouraging us to do the same. After emerging a few years ago as an uncommonly talented young alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader, at a time when she was a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, she is now a quarter of the way through a sequence of 12 albums under the series title Coin Coin (the nickname of Marie Thérèse Metoyer, a freed slave who founded a colony in 18th century Louisiana).

The first volume, Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, appeared in 2011; the second, Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, in 2013; the third, Chapter Three: River Run Thee, is just out. At her present rate of production, if my arithmetic is correct, she will complete the cycle in 2033, at which point those who are still around will be able to enjoy a vast, impressionistic and many-dimensioned view of the history of African Americans, seen through one artist’s eyes.

Roberts calls what she does “panoramic soundquilting”: a particularly appropriate description given the development of quilt-making into an American folk art, beginning with the earliest settlers. What her use of the term conveys is a willingness to use techniques of collage and superimposition to create layers of texture and meaning.

Although Roberts is now based in New York, all three albums were recorded at the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal. Each takes a quite distinct approach. Gens de Couleurs Libre juxtaposed her arrangements for a 16-piece ensemble with songs and readings from diverse sources, with an extended and disturbingly nonchalant depiction of a slave auction as its centrepiece. Mississippi Moonchile found the instrumental resources pared down to a conventional post-Coleman quintet, featuring Roberts’ alto and the trumpet of the excellent Jason Palmer — with the occasional intrusion of Jeremiah Abiah’s operatic tenor providing a provocative contrast.

River Run Thee continues the process of reduction, and is a more demanding experience. Unlike its predecessors, it cannot be listened to as an album of relatively straightforward contemporary jazz, with horns and rhythm sections and riffs and improvisations based on the thematic material. Essentially a solo album featuring Roberts’s voice, alto, synthesiser and piano, it resembles not so much a quilt as one of Gerhard Richter’s abstract works, in which the painter partially scrapes through his own layers of paint to reveal disarticulated fragments of colour and pattern. The 12 movements of this chapter of Roberts’s giant work are indistinctly defined: whooshes and surges of electronic noise part to expose found sounds and voices recorded during a recent trip to the South, shards of free-floating saxophone improvisation and fragments of “The Star Spangled Banner”, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, “All the Pretty Horses” and other pieces from America’s collective memory.

As a child, Roberts’s imagination was fired when her grandfather, a Louisiana man, told her about Marie Thérèse Metoyer; now the South, and particularly the experience of slavery, forms the primed canvas for the whole work to date. Literal meaning, however, is not on offer. She seems to be excavating America’s memory in search of the elements, some of them far distant in time, that shaped her own life, using notes and words but intending to convey something beyond them, something they cannot express. The richness of her gathered material is what makes Coin Coin such a fascinating project, one whose future chapters and ultimate resolution are likely to be awaited with great anticipation for many years to come.

* The painting/collage is by Matana Roberts and forms a part of the cover of Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee, released by the Constellation label.

Lesley Gore 1946-2015

Lesley Gore was preparing for her studies in English and American literature at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College — whose alumni include Yoko Ono, Sigourney Weaver, Alice Walker, Carly Simon and Meredith Monk — while making some of the best records of the girl-group era between 1963 and 1965. Her voice had a sensible, wholesome quality that may have lacked the poignancy of the Shirelles’ Shirley Owens or the sexiness of the Ronettes’ Veronica Bennett but was perfectly suited to the songs that became her hits.

If “It’s My Party” was the best known of them, and “You Don’t Own Me” achieved a different dimension of success after being claimed as a feminist anthem, it’s also worth remembering beauties like “Maybe I Know” (above), its wonderful groove created by Claus Ogerman’s arrangement, Quincy Jones’s production, and a bunch of great New York session men who’d probably forgotten everything about it by the time they sat down to dinner that night. “The Look of Love” is from the same template and just as fine:  a world of danceable teenage anguish compressed into two minutes and three seconds. Both of them came from the pens of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Her version of the classic “What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby)”, written by Gerry Goffin and Russ Titelman, is also extremely beautiful.

She died yesterday, aged 68. Here’s Dave Laing’s Guardian obituary. She had quite a story.

Something trivial (or perhaps not)

Heat WaveThe first scene of The Theory of Everything is set in an undergraduates’ drinks party. It’s captioned “Cambridge, England, 1963″. In her book Travelling to Infinity, on which the film is based, Jane Hawking tells us that the date of the party at which she first encountered her future husband, the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, was January 1 of that year.

The music being played for these middle-class university students in their sports jackets and cocktail dresses is “Heat Wave”, by Martha and the Vandellas. Which, as it happens, was not even recorded until June 1963. It was released in the US on July 10, and in the UK a couple of months later.

Does it matter that the opening scene of a film supposedly based on a true story contains a resounding distortion? A more subjective opinion on the credibility of the scene’s soundtrack, but one likely to be shared by any British fan of black American music who was around at the time, is that in any case a record like “Heat Wave”, even had it been available, would not have been heard at an undergraduates’ cocktail party. Motown music, a year ahead of its UK breakthrough with the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”, was still an underground taste in Britain. Someone might have had a copy of “Love Me Do” to put on the Dansette, but “Telstar” or “Bachelor Boy” would have been more likely.

As we know, however, the makers of films based on historical events like to go for “emotional truth” rather than the literal version. They must have persuaded themselves that “Heat Wave” — which does, of course, sound fabulous coming through cinema speakers — would set up the right kind of resonance in the minds of members of the audience who had no first-hand memory of the era. And that, to them, is what counts.

The same thinking was in evidence last week in the final instalment of Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, a three-part BBC4 series presented by the art historian Dr James Fox on pivotal times in the cultural lives of three major cities: Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928 and New York in 1951. In the New York episode, Fox had lots of good stuff to examine: abstract expressionism, method acting, bebop, beat literature, the birth of the modern advertising industry. Quite legitimately, the programme chose to focus on five emblematic figures: Jackson Pollock, Marlon Brando, Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac and David Ogilvy.

I could just about swallow the modern convention of putting the presenter front and centre, making him a bigger personality than anyone whose art the programme was actually examining. So, for example, we saw Fox evoking Kerouac’s world and work by driving an American car down an endless highway and feeding a big roll of paper into a typewriter. Puerile stuff — but that’s how these things have to be done, or so it seems, in order to get past the commissioning editors.

The warning lights had started flashing, however, as soon as the first piece of music was heard under the opening titles: Charles Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul”. A great piece, of course, and certainly evoking the energy of New York, the city in which it was recorded. “I think it all got started in one remarkable year — 1951,” Fox told us. “This was the year in which the city’s irrepressible creative spirit exploded into life.” Except that “Better Git It in Your Soul” was recorded, as part of the sessions that produced the classic album Ah Um, in May 1959.

There was more great background music to come, all of it used to underscore the events and the atmosphere of 1951. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers playing Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin'” — recorded in 1958. Link Wray’s “Rumble” — also from 1958 (and recorded in Washington DC). Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place” — written for a 1959 film. Gil Evans’s “Where Flamingos Fly” — recorded in 1960. Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” — recorded in 1961.

So why, one had to ask, did the programme’s makers shun the music of 1951, about which the presenter waxed so lyrical? Presumably they’d given it a degree of thought, and concluded that the sounds of Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes”, Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare”, Joe Turner’s “Chains of Love”, or Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tin Tin Deo” — all recorded in 1951 — did not fit their conception of what today’s audience would think of as evoking the cultural phenomenon they were attempting to describe.

I’m not sure that any of this really matters except to those, like me, who fear that once everyone with a first-hand memory of everything that was important to us has gone, a kind of chaos will ensue. But that is, I suppose, how all history eventually comes to be written.

 

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